When out of school time (OST) programs first began to appear back in the early 1980’s they were seen primarily as safe havens where kids could spend the late afternoon hours while their parents were still at work. Park and recreation agencies were quick to get involved in this rapidly growing and evolving industry doing what we do best, keeping kids active and engaged in numerous games, sports and group socialization activities. It was a simple formula that worked well. Kids were noisy, active and happy.
As time progressed, this formula while successful, began being perceived as too simple. Everyone seemed to recognize that these truly are the golden hours in a child’s day and efforts to make the most of them resulted in a shift toward the more academic pursuits of tutoring, computer labs and extended homework time among others. While these activities are of indisputable value their sedentary nature had many of us questioning how prevalent they should be in OST programs.
NRPA’s Commit to Health campaign very clearly answers this question for many of us in the field, and reinforces the direction Johnson County Park and Recreation District has taken in its 28 OST programs that serve 1,600 kids on average every working day of the year.
We are still searching for the perfect balance between what we know kids need and what we believe we should provide and our efforts to achieve this balance began several years ago when our OST programs went screen free.
The removal of all TV’s, video games and DVD’s from every program was surprisingly painless. Inspired by this small success we moved on to what has become an intentional journey toward a healthier OST program.
Highlights so far are:
- Investing in training the entire OST staff on the nutritional and physical needs of children in cooperation with the registered dieticians of Healthy Kids Challenge.
- Complete overhaul of OST program snack menus under the guidance of these same dieticians. Snack service now features daily fresh fruit and vegetables, low sodium, low fat foods and nutritionally dense foods. We were delighted to find that healthier does not necessarily mean more expensive.
- Kids cooking clubs featuring nutrition education and healthy food preparation have been introduced as a regular OST program component. Kids seem more willing to try new foods when they prepare them.
- Creative planning of STEM and other academic offerings to incorporate mobility as part of the instructional process. Participant attentiveness is also improved with this approach.
- Increased focus on exposing children to activities that improve body awareness and flexibility such as Zumba and yoga.
- Our OST programs were a Saucony Run for Good grant recipient with 700 children AND parents participating.The momentum from the Saucony grant continues with walking and jogging clubs at a number of program sites.
- Homework time is optional and limited to 30 minutes. Enough said.
- Provision for outdoor activities regardless of the weather. Kids are dressing for and experiencing hot, cold, wet and white weather conditions, which in Kansas can be present all on the same day.
Park and recreation agencies are leading communities to healthier lifestyles
We have yet to address the parent health education piece of the Healthy Eating, Physical Activity (HEPA) standards but plan to tackle it this coming fall. Distribution of National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) HOST parent education materials along with our weekly program newsletters is one plan of action we will take. Another strategy is to increase parent/child HEPA oriented special events to supplement the already popular parent/child dodge ball and child-prepped parent-consumed tapas.
It has been an exciting and encouraging journey so far and with each success our eagerness to keep evolving our healthy lifestyle initiatives for children grows.
So far our path has been fairly smooth which is to the credit of our program staff. An “all in” attitude is really essential to achieving the goals set out in the HEPA standards. The Healthy Kids Challenge trainings that educated our staff on the nutrition and physical activity needs and issues of children provided the cornerstone that we continue to build upon.
Taking the pledge to Commit to Health seems like a natural next step for us in this process. The pledge allows us to formalize our intentions and holds us accountable to them. It also validates our work and confirms that OST programs are instrumental in helping children develop healthy lifestyle habits.
How are your out of school time programs evolving to incorporate more healthy lifestyle initiatives? NRPA and Johnson County Park and Recreation District want to hear about the efforts your agency is making by committing to health. Tweet us what you think about Commit to Health and if your agency is pledging using the hashtag #CommitToHealth.
Kim Chappelow-Lee is the Children’s Services Manager for Johnson County Park and Recreation District in Merriam, Kansas.